When we look back on this cruel and terrifying stretch of American history, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s 45 minutes of lies to the White House press corps about the Trump administration’s family-separation policy may mark a turning point in the way the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border is covered—and whether the American people tolerate it or rise up against it.
Her ice-blue eyes blinking rapidly, Nielsen ricocheted between officious and affable as she assaulted the assembled reporters with mendacity, causing Twitter to explode with instant fact-checking. Trump’s Homeland Security chief lied when she insisted family separation was a matter of law, not policy (White House strategist Stephen Miller, the abomination’s architect, coolly terms it “policy”). She lied when she said that it was not intended as a deterrent to undocumented immigrants (her predecessor John Kelly, now chief of staff, described it as a way to “deter” parents from crossing last year). Nielsen depicted many of the “parents” crossing the border as smugglers, claiming that the number of “family units” consisting of a child and a smuggler, rather than a parent, jumped by 314 percent in the last five months. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump found that, while it’s true that the number of “individuals using minors to pose as fake family units” jumped from 46 in fiscal year 2017 to 191 in the first five months of 2018, that was out of 31,000 families. Which means that for every 1,000 families crossing the border seeking asylum, six included someone with a criminal record—whether smuggling, trafficking, drug dealing, or something else—using a child to press their claim; 994 did not.
Nielsen also insisted that detained children can call their parents (most cannot) and that they are being carefully tracked and well tended (lawyers, parents, advocates, and lawmakers who’ve visited the children say that’s not true either). The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics was told she could not hug a crying child; a former detention-center staffer turned whistle-blower said he was told not to let siblings hug each other. In one facility, a detained teenager was in charge of changing a toddler detainee’s diapers. “Once the parent and child are apart, they’re on separate legal tracks,” former ICE director John Sandweg told The New York Times. In fact, detained parents have no idea when, where, how—or even if—they’ll get their children back.
“Literally everything she said was a lie,” a still-stunned Representative Pramila Jayapal told me by phone Tuesday morning. Asked to choose one outstanding falsehood, she quickly replied: “Well, the children being detained are significantly younger than Nielsen said.” Just last week, the Seattle congressmember met mothers in detention who’d lost children as young as 1 year old.
The only good news about Nielsen’s headline-making cavalcade of mendacity was that it coincided with early planning for a day of resistance to the Trump family-separation policy, scheduled for Washington, DC’s Lafayette Park on June 30 at 11 am. In the 12 hours after Jayapal announced the action on MSNBC Monday night, more than 100 cities announced plans to host satellite rallies. Initially convened by MoveOn and the Domestic Workers Alliance, the action now claims sponsorship from the nation’s largest unions and civil-rights and faith groups. It’s hard not to think that the outrage over Nielson’s lie-fest helped fuel the interest.
So did another Monday-afternoon obscenity: the release of an eight-minute audio, obtained by ProPublica, featuring the sound of children in detention sobbing and wailing, calling “Mami!” and “Papi, Papi!” On the audio, a 6-year old begs someone to call her “tia,” or aunt. She’s memorized her tia’s phone number and recites it over and over like a prayer. Meanwhile, a Border Patrol agent straight out of Dickens chuckles about the “orchestra” of children crying. “What’s missing is a conductor,” he cruelly jokes. Asked about the audio, Nielsen claimed she hadn’t heard it. In fact, Nielsen punted on virtually every single specific question about conditions in the detention centers where children are scattered, which made her promises that the kids are well cared for especially unbelievable.
Jayapal thinks that public opinion is turning sharply against the Trump family-separation policy, citing the opposition of everyone from former first lady Laura Bush to Trump ally Franklin Graham. I hope she’s right. I was mildly depressed by a CNN poll released Monday showing that, while two-thirds of Americans oppose Trump’s family separation policy, and only 28 percent support it, twice as many Republicans do (56 percent)—which is just more proof that the GOP truly is Trump’s party. There seems to be so much momentum behind reversing the policy, yet the president and his allies are openly using it as leverage to get the rest of their cruel immigration plan passed: $25 billion for a border wall, plus a vast reduction to legal, not just illegal, immigration. (Except by Norwegians, of course). Democrats (and some Republicans) will refuse to accede to that blackmail, and so efforts at a legislative solution will almost certainly fail.
Of course, no legislation is needed: Trump could end this policy today. But clearly, he is taking these children hostage. More than 2,300 have been snatched from their parents in recent weeks; more will follow. It should be no surprise: This is the GOP presidential candidate who said that when fighting ISIS terrorists, US military forces should “take out their families.” That happens to be a war crime, and the UN has already condemned Trump’s family-separation policy, too. But don’t expect him to give up his hostages any time soon.
It’s been an awful 16 months since Trump’s inauguration, but this period is the worst yet. Riding the subway on Monday, I watched a mother play “peek-a-boo” with a child who looked less than a year old. He squealed with joy every time she lifted the awning on his stroller so that he could see her again. Then she’d close it; then she’d lift it, to more happy squeals. I remember playing “peek-a-boo” with my daughter; the game lets children slowly master the trauma of brief separation while learning: Mom always comes back. But at the Texas/Mexico border over the last month or so, kids are finding out that Mom is not coming back. The horror is finally hitting majorities of Americans and the media. Will the growing backlash be enough to stop it?
“People are looking to come together as a country,” Jayapal tells me. I have to believe she’s right.